Spain: Railroad Gauge

Spanish railways are broad gauge. I asked about the new Talgo trains. Christopher Jones replies: The Spanish railways still run on broad gauge; the Talgo train that runs from Paris to Barcelona used a mechanical method of expanding the undercarriage to accommodate the broader Spanish tracks.  All other trains stop at Irun or at Port Bou, where the passenger must get off the French train and climb aboard a Spanish one.  The recent moves to extend the French TGV to Barcelona have required the construction of an entirely new railway line, leaving the older broader gauge intact.

From the UK. George Sassoon forwards this comment from a railroad expert: I think Spain and the USSR operate 5' 3" gauge, not the 7' broad gauge of M. Brunel. I suspect the sleeper end cutting tail originated with an old wife, unless perhaps they were short of kindling wood, as the % difference between standard gauge and 5' 3" is not too great. Certain freight trains between France and Spain had their wheels changed at Irun, a time consuming process.  The British Isles received Spanish produce by freight train once, in InterFrigo wagons, but the gauge change delay, plus the parochial boundaries of the European railways, meant that road haulers collared most of the trade, as they have done elsewhere, largely because they did the job better than the railways.

Hank Levin writes: For those steam buffs­I am one­I recommend that they read:  Christopher McGowan, Rail, Steam, & Speed: The Rocket and the Birth of Steam Locomotion (Columbia University Press, published in November 2004).  This is a marvelous book about the early steam locomotives and the competition among engineers and inventors to improve them with analysis of the changes over time that increased their speed, power, and safety.  It also addresses the origins of “standard gauge” which is 5 ‘ 7 ½” , and how it came about (not by rational means).  Brunel is celebrated in this book as a magnificent engineer.  I was pleased to read his feats, and proud that my daughter is a graduate of Brunel University.  The book inspired me to plan a trip for this summer to the National Rail Museum in York to see the Rocket and other historical locomotives.  The book was originally published in the UK, and it is readily available on both sides of the Atlantic.

RH: The original broad gauge was 7'. I do not think any railroads now have it.  What is precisely the gauge of the Spanish and Russian railroads?

Regarding railroad gauges, George Sassoon consulted his Irish friend Paddy Smith, who replied: Standard gauge is 4ft 8.5 inches. Russia and Spain use 5ft 3 inches. The Irish are slightly different, I believe. Peter Hendy asserts that this is because when trying to decide the gauge they should use, they hit upon the idea of using the average of all the other gauges then in existence. George replies: David aka Paddy -The 4'8.5 gauge was a standard ancient cart gauge in the north of England and was adopted by the Stephensons, and is also the gauge of the Maltese cart-tracks of umpteen thousand B.C. Once a standard has been set, it can be very difficult to change! Incidentally I have just acquired a DVD of the film "Eye of the Needle", made in one of our houses in Mull, and the producer was an enthusiast for railways, so there are many vintage station and train scenes. 

RH: I have traveled over the world, including Scotland, but I have never been to the Hebrides, Inner or Outer. I have long wondered why Samuel Johnson made his tour of them in 1773.  Did he go to the Isle of Mull? What is a mull? There are a number of places called Mull in that area.  Is George telling us that there are or were railways on the Isle of Mull? Incidentally there is a very slight difference between British and French gauges. The new Eurostar train tracks must solve that problem. I assume it adopted the French gauge

Randy Black writes:I recall a travel broadcast a few years ago that showed the Orient Express having to change all its carriages from the European standard to that of Russia for its trip across Russia on the way to China; at both borders. It was said that it was about an eight hour process at each end, going into Russia from Europe and then into China from Russia and vice versa. Russia’s practice made about as much sense as their efforts to publish inaccurate road maps in the 50s and 60s so as to confuse foreign invaders, as if satellite mapping had not already rendered their efforts obsolete.
I suppose the secret cities practice, still in use in Russia today, was a similar misplaced effort. I also recall a US documentary a few years ago about the so-called secret cities, not on any map of Russia, yet there, cities with only a number, not a name and so forth.

RH:  Can Cameron Sawyer tell us if indeed secret cities still exist in Russia?

Ronald Hilton 2005


last updated: April 16, 2005